Prepare for the Roaring Twenties

The human desire to socialize will survive the pandemic.

Two women wearing flu masks during the 1918 flu pandemic (Getty)

When confronted with disaster, believing that everything will change is all too easy. How is it possible to write poems after Auschwitz, to enjoy a Sunday stroll in Lower Manhattan following 9/11, or, indeed, to dine in restaurants after a pandemic kills hundreds of thousands of people in the span of a few cruel months?

In 1974, the sociologist Jib Fowles coined the term chronocentrism, “the belief that one’s own times are paramount, that other periods pale in comparison.” The past few weeks have, understandably, confronted us with an especially loud chorus of chronocentric voices claiming that we are on the cusp of unprecedented change. Academics, intellectuals, politicians, and entrepreneurs have made sweeping pronouncements about the transformations that the pandemic will spur.

After surveying a number of prominent economists and historians, The New York Times declared that we are about to witness the “end of the world economy as we know it.” Proclaiming the demise of the “neoliberal era,” one left-wing writer argued, “Whatever you might be thinking about the long-term impacts of the coronavirus epidemic, you’re probably not thinking big enough.” At Bloomberg View, a right-wing investor asserted that the pandemic is “driving the last nail into the coffin of the globalists.”

Yet other writers are claiming that our social lives will never go back to normal. Drawing from experiences in Wuhan, a psychologist has warned that some people may be so scarred by the pandemic that they will be too afraid to leave their home. Others predict the end of hugs or handshakes. According to The Economist, young people will engage less in casual sex. And reflecting on the impossibility of practicing social distancing in bars, Germany’s biggest magazine even announced “the end of the night.”

COVID-19 will undoubtedly cause some important shifts. But the sensationalist predictions that now dominate the world’s opinion pages are likely to be highly inaccurate. That the pandemic will radically alter the course of globalization is far from certain. And it almost certainly won’t stop people from enjoying an active social life—even at bars, parties, and restaurants.

In the last months of World War I, a novel virus sped around the world, infecting hundreds of millions of people. The 1918 influenza ultimately killed more than 50 million.

At the time, it must have seemed as though life could never go back to normal. Why would anyone ever again risk contracting a disease just to share a drink with friends or listen to some music?

But the devastation of World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic was quickly followed by a manic flight into sociability. The Roaring Twenties saw a flowering of parties and concerts. The 1918 virus killed more people than the deadliest war humanity had hitherto experienced, but it did not reduce humanity’s determination to socialize.

Throughout history, humanity has, again and again, experienced pestilence. And though these bouts of infectious disease have had all kinds of long-lasting consequences—including, according to some historians, the abolition of serfdom in parts of Western Europe—they never stopped people from seeking out one another’s company.

Pandemics are not the only tragedies that demonstrate the human determination to congregate at all cost. In the 2000s, when suicide bombers regularly attacked cities such as Baghdad and Tel Aviv, people nevertheless insisted on going about their daily life. And when terrorism came to France, cafés and clubs did not lack for customers there either. The number of armed soldiers walking the streets of Paris may have gone up, but the number of patrons at the city’s dining establishments did not sink to nearly the same extent. (Similarly, plenty of countries that suffer from high levels of shootings or kidnappings, such as Brazil, Guatemala, and Mexico, nevertheless sustain a vibrant nightlife.)

No one can say how long the acute phase of this pandemic will last. But what is virtually certain is that its impact on the extent of human sociability will prove to be temporary. Five or 10 years from now, there will be about as many mass gatherings as there were before the coronavirus. Because we’re human.

Left: Precautions taken during the influenza pandemic of 1918. (Bettman / Getty) Right: A New York street cleaner wears a mask to check the spread of the influenza pandemic. “Better be ridiculous than dead” is the view of one official. (Bettman / Getty)

Predictions about the pandemic’s political and economic impact also seem off base. As a rule, they focus too much on the (perceived) irrationality of present realities, and too little on what would need to happen to put something better in place.

The pandemic, some argue, has shown the need for single-payer health care and demonstrated the lunacy of relying on a just-in-time manufacturing process that makes the global production of essential goods vulnerable to shocks in faraway countries.

But many institutions persist despite deep flaws because those who would benefit from change can’t work together effectively or agree on a replacement. Just about everybody agrees that the UN Security Council is, in its current form, incapable of keeping the peace in the world’s most imperiled regions, such as Syria. But because different governments have different visions of how the council should be reformed—and because those that have a permanent seat are reluctant to dilute their influence—the system keeps trudging along.

These same problems of collective action also make an abrupt end to globalization or neoliberalism unlikely. Let us suppose, for example, that the pandemic has shown that large companies would benefit from bringing production back to the United States, because they cannot rule out another global shock 10 or 30 or 50 years from now. Even companies that recognize long-term risks will continue to face stiff competition over prices in the short term. And if a move that reduces substantial risk down the road also increases the chances of losing a large number of customers right now, executives and shareholders are unlikely to pursue it.

Likewise, although the U.S.’s failure to deal adequately with this pandemic shows how depleted the country’s state capacity has become, big government won’t necessarily make a comeback. I, for one, think America ought to reinvest in institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But others are likely to take a different lesson from the pandemic: that government is simply incapable of doing a good job, for example.

Moral philosophers like to warn about the “natural fallacy”: Just because something is the case does not mean that it ought to be so. Similarly, those who make bold predictions about the future should beware the “predictive fallacy”: Just because current circumstances provide reason to think that something ought to be the case hardly means that it will be.

Baseball players wearing masks that they thought would keep them from getting the flu during the influenza pandemic of 1918 (Life Images Collection / Getty)

None of this is to suggest that the pandemic will leave the world completely unchanged. It may change in small yet significant ways; governments, for example, may push to expand capacity to produce more crucial goods domestically. Because these crucial goods make up only a tiny fraction of the overall economy, however, this would barely serve to slow—much less reverse—globalization.

The pandemic could also accelerate existing trends. In a recent article, Roberto Stefan Foa and I showed how authoritarian countries are, for the first time in more than a century, starting to rival the economic might of liberal democracies. As China now seemingly emerges from the worst effects of the pandemic, while many democracies still struggle to master it, power could shift away from democratic countries even more rapidly.

And I wouldn’t rule out truly historic transformations—just our ability to know what they will be. The Black Death did not lead to a weakening of feudalism because medieval masters recognized the irrationality of an economic system that left a huge portion of the population undernourished, then acted in a concerted manner to remedy that systemic failing. Rather, the death toll so depleted the pool of available laborers that serfs were put in a stronger bargaining position—a consequence that contemporaries, unsurprisingly, utterly failed to predict.

Growing up in Munich, I loved to visit a technology museum in the center of the city, with old cars, a giant ship, and a nightmare-inducing Faraday cage. A few times a day, a man would sit inside a metal container while his colleagues directed tens of thousands of volts of electricity in his direction, miraculously sparing him, even as a giant flash of lightning struck a few inches from my face. The exhibit I remember most vividly, however, was rather plain: a freestanding wall that represented the growth of the human population over the past millennia. Starting low, near the ground, it ascended more and more steeply as it approached the present.

Only at two points did the upward curve tarry: around the 14th century and again at the beginning of the 20th. The primary reason for the temporary declines in the world’s population, a sign explained, was pestilence: the Black Death and the 1918 flu pandemic. Even then, what struck me most about that wall was what it didn’t show. World War II and the Holocaust, in which much of my family perished, was invisible. So were many other disasters and diseases that I had learned about in school.

The coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy of historic magnitude. It may well be remembered as the most significant global event since the fall of the Soviet Union. I do not in any way mean to downplay either that magnitude or the suffering it will continue to cause for many years.

Even so, let’s avoid the temptation of chronocentrism. Sooner or later, this bout of pestilence will come to an end. Humanity will survive this pandemic. In its aftermath, as after so many other disasters, we will learn to thrive anew. And although the world we then inhabit will be different, it won’t be unrecognizable.